From the onset of the crisis, inventive musicians looked for (digital) alternatives, but found themselves limited by the paucity of playable genres. Striking up the “intelligent conversation between equals”, which so delighted Goethe in string quartet playing, remains tentative at best via apps developed to facilitate long distance conferencing. Not only because harmony involves proximity, but also and especially because its opposite – counterpoint – presupposes the presence of fellow musicians to converse, debate, disagree and ultimately fight with. Born in the Renaissance as a polyphonic technique involving voices which are harmonically interdependent, but melodically and rhythmically independent, counterpoint is an eminently interactive genre.
In order to side-step this socio-collaborative condition on counterpoint, one can of course rely on technology to reduplicate or deduplicate a solo player to achieve the ultimate challenge in the “punctum contra punctum”. However, it takes a genius composer, and a talented and audacious performer to avoid the pitfall of narcistic self-indulgence so often inherent in such exercises.
Steve Reich (1936) is a major pioneer of the compositional school called Minimalism, which came to prominence on the American east coast in the 1960’s. Minimalism relies on repetitive pulses, stable drones, and the constant reiteration of musical phrases, often based on structured processes like phase shifting. Minimal music is typically non-narrative, non-linear and non-representational: it rarely symbolizes extramusical meaning. It has been suggested that the ambiance and vibe of minimal music proceed from a subliminal art of perception which reaches beyond what is actually played, to capture and subconsciously appreciate the tensions involved in structural processes such as phase-shifting.
In the 1980’s, Reich toyed with a novel counterpoint technique involving one live performer who plays against a pre-recorded tape of him- or herself. The New York Counterpoint was commissioned in 1984 by clarinettist Richard Stoltzman for nine B-flat clarinets and three bass clarinets. It was preceded by Vermont Counterpoint (1982) for flutes, Electric Counterpoint (1987) for electric guitars, and eventually followed by Cello Counterpoint (2003).
Of these, the clarinet implementation is the rhythmically more intricate, but also the one which pays homage most explicitly to Reich’s musical heritage, as the composer himself stated in the programme notes to the original performance:
“The compositional procedures include several that occur in my earlier music. The opening pulses ultimately come from the opening of Music for 18 Musicians (1976). The use of interlocking repeated melodic patterns played by multiples of the same instrument can be found in my earliest works, Piano Phase (for 2 pianos or 2 marimbas) and Violin Phase (for 4 violins) both from 1967”.
Belgian clarinet virtuoso Roeland Hendrikx has been wanting to record the New York Counterpoint for some time, if only because it is such a masterpiece: “the sound palette Reich conjures up is unbelievably rich: it is easy to perceive all sorts of electronic vibes in a texture which is produced by no more than “ordinary” clarinets. It generates an incredible ambiance: you feel the frenzy of the New York rush hour slowly invade your body while you listen”.
“You can play this gem as a soloist with tape – as Reich intended it – or with a clarinet ensemble – I’ve done it with the Maastricht Conservatory’s clarinet choir a couple of times. But to me the work is more powerful when all the parts are performed by the same player: it brings to the ensemble playing an extra layer of unity and harmony, and the disharmony inherent in counterpoint is served much better if you go up against yourself. You are, after all, your own best mate, and your own worst enemy. Since you are only as good or as bad as yourself, there are no superior or inferior roles in this “split personality” sort of counterpoint”.
“Still, it logistically is quite an endeavour to sequentially record the ten parts of the tape, and it seems perverse to be playing with yourself when there’s so much chamber and concert music out there you can play with your friends and colleagues. But then Corona kicked in, and I suddenly saw all my concerts and rehearsals cancelled. The first weeks I was overjoyed to be able to practice the new repertoire I had to prepare for my upcoming concerts, but then it sank in that there wouldn’t be any concerts for the foreseeable and not so foreseeable future.”
“At the exact moment society was in need of what musicians have to offer, all interactive and public music making suddenly came to a halt. We tried to provide comfort from windows and webcams, but to me, this sort of ersatz – however timely and empathic – does not really touch upon the essence of my profession: I needed other outlets for the intensity and concentration involved in professional music making. In short: I wanted to make the most of Corona. I wanted to exploit the lockdown as an excuse to explore new ways of reaching in but also reaching out: why should I, as a performer, be elevated on a stage, while you, as a listener, have to watch from a distance below? Isn’t it much nicer, for the both of us, to get really close?”
And so the New York Counterpoint became a timely occasion for conceptual innovation. Corona unwittingly provided empty recording studios and lots of time on idle musicians’ hands. And due to its solitary essence, the New York Counterpoint complies with all social distancing rules: it merely involves an enterprising clarinet player in the recording room, and a brilliant engineer at the controls. But this operational blessing is nothing compared to the revolution for the listener.
Roeland Hendrikx: “I can now invite you, dear music lover, to sit down in the centre of the circle formed by myself and my clarinet playing “avatars”. No place is more privileged to absorb the fluidity of the lines, the plasticity of the sound, and the harmony and disharmony of the war that counterpoint actually is. Please allow yourself be absorbed: we are happy to immerse you in the web we weave”.